Your article entitled “No argument for evil” (Sunday Australian 5/8/06) caught my eye. At first glance, I thought it an unusual perspective for one of Rupert’s chaps to take, but then I arrived at your concluding paragraphs and realised that you were in fact sticking to the party line.
The banality of your conclusions compels me to offer a rebuttal.
The vehicle for your venture into the “Culture Wars” is a review of a book, which I understand, examines the relative and absolute moral standards to be observed by civilised societies during times of conflict.
The author’s argument, you conclude, “is a sophisticated intellectual exercise that makes the case for the immorality of using military force that is out of all proportion to what the task requires.” You then proceed to reject this altogether reasonable proposition in favour of what you consider “the obvious.” Unfortunately, the obvious is all too often, also the facile.
Not having read Grayling’s book I am in no position to champion his argument. My concern is the flawed assumptions and specious reasoning implicit in your critique.
A good deal of your discussion revolves around the moral distinctions between the actions of “democracies” and their enemies. The allied terror bombing of WWII and the events of “Sept 11th” are the main examples used for this analysis. In defending the allied bombings against allegations of immorality and potential legal culpability, you necessarily attempt to justify the violence they perpetrated against civilians.
Before I look more closely at some of the moral distinctions you draw in this process it is worth examining some of the broader implications of your argument.
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I allow that I may be misinterpreting your intentions, but you seem to subscribe to the wisdom that democracies do not wage war on other democracies. Whilst I would agree that this is generally the case, (the War of 1812 being a rather dubious exception that presumably proves the rule) such an assertion begs a number of rather tricky questions. More specifically, this wisdom implies that democracies are the good guys and do not start wars, which is an altogether more difficult proposition to maintain in the face of even a little bit of history.
Perhaps the answer is that the more democratic the society, the less aggressive and warlike it is.
Democracy is a work in progress. Its evolution has followed a slow and uneven path. Britain’s constitutional history is widely regarded as providing a model for the modern development of democracy, but those characteristics that we consider indispensable for a democratic system today, took hundreds of years to evolve into their current forms. It is less than a century since women won the right to vote. Can we consider a polity that disenfranchises half its population, to be a democracy? Today we would have trouble doing so, but a hundred years ago, I doubt that it would have been seen as a problem (except of course by women).
I do not know when the idea that democracies do not start wars arose, but I expect it was relatively recently, otherwise Britain’s subjugation of a large percentage of the population of the world would be difficult to reconcile with her democratic pretensions. But then, the definition of “war” is just as flexible as that of democracy.
England’s colonisation of India undoubtedly involved acts of war, but I doubt that many British imperialists would have perceived such aggression in the same light as a war with another European power. Today, of course, we would certainly characterise such aggression as war; however, we may not regard such acts as having been done by a democracy.
What of the invasion of Australia? Was this an act of war? There was no declaration, none of the usual protocols or legal niceties, just an assumption of authority and the cruel displacement of a relatively defenceless people. There were few pitched battles, just sporadic confrontations that followed a depressingly standardised formula. The murder of isolated settlers, or sometimes just the killing of livestock, would result in disproportionate and often arbitrary retaliation. I suppose you would justify such actions on the basis that the Aborigines started the violence that was in effect, terrorism. Indigenous Australians, then and now, consider the invasion of their country as an act of war. It may not have been much of a war compared to the epic conflicts that periodically engulfed European powers, but the consequences for the vanquished were far more catastrophic. Was it not a virtual genocide, unintentional perhaps, but genocide nonetheless?
However, Britain was still not a democracy, as we would define it.#
What about the Opium Wars? Were they perpetrated by a democratic Britain? No? Well then what about the bombing and gassing of rebellious Kurdish villages in Iraq at the instigation of Churchill in the early 1920s? Was Britain a democracy in the 20s?
Your answer would presumably be that those Kurdish villagers were insurgents and terrorists and therefore were legitimate targets for democratic bombs. What’s more, they started it.*
What of that other great democracy, the USA? The land of the brave and home of the free. Surely, this pillar of political virtue would never use excessive violence. Certainly, the US has preferred to use proxies to do its dirty work, but there has been the odd little adventure like the Vietnam “War” in which two million Vietnamese people were killed in the name of “liberty”. Then there were the several thousand casualties resulting from the US bombing of Noriega’s headquarters in Panama City when George Bush senior decided that the CIA stooge had outlived his usefulness.
The list of US perpetrated or sponsored acts of terrorism, employed to further its own interests, is a very long one indeed and I do not intend to canvas the items here. However, it is worth considering one of the US’s more egregious forays into the “real politic” of feeding its insatiable appetite for oil.
When the British and American “intelligence” organizations instigated the overthrow of the legitimate government of Iran and installed the Shar, they were very pleased with themselves. It was a masterful piece of skulduggery. Unfortunately, it set in train a series of events that, so far, has cost millions of lives and is still gathering momentum. The brutal reign of the Shar led directly to the equally violent theocracy of Khomeini and the saga of the US Embassy hostages. This, inturn, led the US to befriend Sadaam who decided, rather rashly, to invade Iran. Instead of the troops being home for Ramadan, the Iraqi’s discovered that they had bitten off more than they could chew and resorted to using weapons of mass destruction against the hordes of young martyrs of Islam. These weapons were provided, along with a good deal more, by the US.
I pose the question of America’s moral and legal culpability in these events. Aiding and abetting the use of poison gas on people defending themselves against the aggression of a vicious tyrant, because it suits your hegemonic aspirations, is a really tough one to justify.
It seems we have two choices: either we conclude that democracies are not necessarily the good guys, or that countries like the USA are not as democratic as they seem at first glance. Being an ardent supporter of democracy, albeit with Churchill’s sceptical qualification, that it is the least worst system of government, I would opt for the latter.
There is no question that the USA is a procedural democracy. Its government is elected by a universally enfranchised citizenry; it has a free press, freedom of association, and a largely independent judiciary. However, to achieve the status of being a substantive democracy, I would argue that a little more is required.
I suggest that a democracy is only as good as the quality of political debate within its institutions and among its citizens, which is in turn dependant upon the quality and quantity of information available to feed that debate.
The problem in ostensibly democratic societies like the US and Australia is that, for a variety of reasons, the media is dominated by large corporations whose clients are other large corporations and governments. This inevitably creates a confluence of interest that does nothing to nurture diversity of opinion and debate. Such a situation diminishes the contrasts with more autocratic societies. The potential for these powerful interests to control the flow of information and sway public opinion is immense.
You can see where I am going with this can’t you, so lets get back to your justifications of democratic terrorism.
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You argue that the terror bombing of German cities was justified because, at the time, it was the only weapon that the Allies could bring to Germany. Perfectly true, but isn’t that exactly the reasoning al-Qa’ida would use to justify flying a plane into a building? If you are fighting a holy war against the only world super-power, what are your options? Hitting “soft targets” is morally indefensible, but for organizations like al-Qa’ida, strategically and tactically effective. Your utilitarian justification for Harris’s ruthlessness can only be differentiated from Sept. 11th by the righteousness of the motivating cause and the scale of the carnage. You argue that the allies could justify the intentional killing of innocents because we were the good guys and the Nazis were the bad guys. But what caused the Nazis to be perceived as being so evil that a civilian population that had no voice in deciding its Government’s actions was a legitimate target for bombers? # If you are arguing that the illegal invasion of another country was in itself justification for such terrorism, then you are providing a defence for the perpetrators of the recent outrages in London, which were almost certainly a direct consequence of Britain’s part in the illegal invasion of Iraq.
If, on the other hand, it was the other terrible things that the Nazis did, rather than simply their imperialism that made them so evil, then surely, if the allies indulged their own blood lust, the point of moral difference is still lost.
Your next justification is that later in the war, “the bombing continued because it is in the nature of armed forces to keep fighting until someone surrenders…”. In other words, war and violence have a momentum and destiny of their own. The German people did not foresee the terrible consequences that would result from picking a fight with some of their neighbours. The causal nexus between US policy in the Middle East and Sept 11 is irrefutable. Bin Ladin was a bomb just waiting for the US to prime and set. He happily killed Soviets for the Americans because they were Godless invaders of an Islamic nation. When the Americans failed to withdraw their military from Saudi Arabia after the first Gulf War, he just as happily killed Americans. To him they are just another infidel imperialist power.
Resentment generated by seemingly endless betrayals by western powers (but mainly Britain, France and the US) of the peoples of Islam [the betrayal of the Arabs at Versailles; of the Kurds; of the Algerians; of the Iraqi Shiites; of Iran and most shamefully of all, the Palestinians], is widespread and in many communities has been fuelled to a white hot intensity. To argue that Islamic fundamentalists suddenly, for no apparent reason, have decided to wage a war of terror on the USA because they don’t like its values and ignore the havoc caused by so many decades of arrogant and clumsy US meddling throughout the region, is either perfidious or moronic.
The genie, once out of the bottle, is difficult to get back in. How do you know when a Jihad is won, or lost for that matter?
And so we come back to your central point; that not only are democracies the good guys, but that our evil enemies are unreasonable fanatics who must be defeated by what ever means are at our disposal; i.e. The ends justifies the means when dealing with fanatics. This is what you deem to be the obvious omission from Graylings thesis. However, I suggest that what is really obvious is the inherent contradiction in your own position. It is not enough simply to believe you are on the side of the angels, you have to prove it to yourself and others, by acting the part as well. This may at times be very difficult to do, but who said virtue was meant to be easy.
I spent my childhood, indeed the bulk of my life in a culture of fear engendered by the Cold War strategic policy of Mutually Assured Destruction, which was in itself underpinned by the philosophical position that it is better to be dead than red. To this end the western democracies were prepared, at last resort, to wipe out most, if not all life on this planet. Nothing fanatical or extreme about that, is there?
From an early age and certainly once I began to take an interest in history, this seemed a rather short sighted perspective, given the ephemeral nature of political landscapes. I remember reading an account of a farewell conversation between an Australian diplomat, abandoning China in 1949 as the Communists took control and a Chinese academic. The Australian asked his friend how long he thought the communist regime might last. The Chinese was sanguine in his reply, ”Not long: one, maybe two hundred years.”
You attribute to our “enemies” the “proud point of treating everybody not with them as an enemy to be killed or conquered.” This seems a strange reference with which to differentiate “us” from “them”, as it is almost exactly the sentiment expressed by G.W. Bush soon after Sept. 11th 2001. Your inability to perceive the inconsistencies in your argument suggests that you subscribe to one of two very dubious beliefs:
my country can do no wrong – which is idiotic
my country right or wrong- which is iniquitous.
This sort of morally illiterate patriotism is only slightly less dangerous than the belief that the righteous can do no wrong because God is on their side.
Of course, the best rejoinder to your argument is that it is counterproductive for democracies to use excessive force. It may make strategic sense for political or religious extremists to use terror to disrupt an enemy society, but democracies must have different strategic goals. Goals that eventually involve seeking political solutions to confrontations. Having them by the balls is not really an alternative to winning hearts and minds because sooner or later you have to let go. The alternative is indefinite occupation and coercion, which is expensive and ultimately corrosive of the culture of the democratic state. Imperialism is not consistent with current definitions of democracy. Ghandi rather effectively demonstrated that.
History teaches us this lesson over and over again.
With regard to the question at hand, bombing has been shown repeatedly to be ineffective in achieving political goals. The Blitz failed in demoralising the British, the Allied firestorms failed to demoralise the Germans, the US bombing of Hanoi failed to convince the North Vietnamese of the benefits of democracy and capitalism; nor have the recent Israeli attacks in southern Lebanon turned that population into Zionists. Sooner or later, ground forces have to move in to reap the hatred that was sown from the skies. I acknowledge Japan’s capitulation after the atomic bombings, but suggest that as another doubtful example of an exception proving a rule.
Just as the Israelis have enormously enhanced the influence of the Hizballah, so the US and its acolytes have given huge impetus to the cause of radical Islam, by the invasion of Iraq. This was the culmination of eighty years of Western, (but mainly Anglo-American) foreign policy of incredible ineptitude.
The following assessment of the occupation of Iraq is illuminating:
“The people of England have been led in (Iraq) into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Baghdad communiqués are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows…We are today not far from disaster.” – T.E.Lawrence published in the Sunday Times August 1920.
The aphorism, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance”, has a somewhat doubtful provenance, but is often ascribed to Thomas Jefferson. This well-worn wisdom has commonly been appropriated by xenophobes and jingoists to engender fear in order to enhance their own power. However, Jefferson almost certainly was not thinking of external threats, but rather, of the far greater risk to a democracy posed by its own institutions.
If the Blitz could not subvert British democracy, then the odd terrorist attack is unlikely to. However, if Mr. Murdoch persists, with the help of minions like your good self, with his tireless campaign throughout his empire to: erode civil liberties with draconian legislation; undermine the legal system by attacking habeas corpus and the rules of evidence; and unravel social cohesion by promoting fear and loathing at every opportunity, he may well succeed where al-Qa’ida will certainly fail.
You undertake a grave responsibility when you sanction and thereby endorse terrorism, as you have done, in a national newspaper that has pretensions of gravitas. Terrorism is often an expression of ultimate frustration and despair. It is the weapon of last resort employed by the disenfranchised, disempowered and dispossessed.
It is also often the weapon of choice for messianic lunatics. Its most odious expression however, is when it is employed by powerful, wealthy democracies that have so many other options. This is the worst type of terrorism because it not only betrays the virtue and history of a democracy’s citizens; it betrays the whole raison d’etre of democracy itself.
In conclusion, I refer you to Robert Fisk’s fascinating book, The Great War for Civilisation, which is most instructive in matters pertaining to the West’s relationships with the Islamic world. The passage quoted below was written as a reflection on an incident that occurred soon after your employer purchased the London Times. Fisk had written an article detailing his investigations into the shooting down of an Iranian airliner by a US frigate. The story was censored because it shed an unflattering light on US policy and the competence with which that policy was executed.
“If we (journalists) cannot tell the truth ……… because this will harm ‘our’ side in a war or because it will cast one of our ‘hate’ countries in the role of victim or because it might upset the owner of our newspaper- then we contribute to the very prejudices that provoke wars in the first place.”
# However, Australia was certainly a democracy when punitive massacres were still occurring in the nineteen twenties and beyond.
*. This campaign was enthusiastically executed by Arthur (Bomber) Harris, subsequent mastermind of the firestorm bombing of German cities, which is a neat little bit of historical symmetry, don’t you think?
# We hear much about the freedoms of living in a democratic country, but less of the responsibilities. The more democratic a society the greater the responsibility to be an informed and active citizen and the greater the level of accountability we must bear for the actions of our Government. Thus, we must accept a higher duty of care than the cowered populations of more autocratic states. It is no answer to embrace Australians’ proud ethos of “don’t know-don’t care”.
The fact that GW Bush was elected, if elected he was, by about a quarter of the electorate, does not absolve the apathetic half of the population of responsibility for his actions; particularly after his re-election.
The greed and desire for revenge that the European powers displayed at Versailles had generally popular support. There is not much dispute that there lay the seeds of Nazism and WWII. To what extent were the populations of France and Britain responsible for the next act of the drama and how well were they counselled by the media of the time?